Remarks by NASA Adminstrator Michael Griffin: What the Hubble Space Telescope Teaches Us about Ourselves

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Friday, July 25, 2008


Remarks at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition

24 July 2008

Good evening. I would like to begin by thanking Ken Ford for inviting me to be with you tonight. The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) is a truly unique group, tackling interdisciplinary issues of science and engineering that help to extend mankind's reach on many frontiers.

We at NASA deal with the issues surrounding man-machine interfaces every day, in flying the International Space Station, controlling over fifty Earth and space science missions in operation today, developing new flight control algorithms and avionics for future aircraft, or building the next generation of space vehicles to return Americans to the Moon and, later, journey even deeper into our solar system. To carry out our mission of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research, we must understand the conditions our machines will face and how they will behave under those conditions, because mission success and, indeed, the lives of our astronauts depend upon our machines and the technical acumen of the scientists and engineers who develop and operate them.

I thought it appropriate to speak tonight about the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest machines NASA has ever built, and about our relationship with that machine and what it has taught us about our universe and, more importantly, ourselves. In October, astronauts on Space Shuttle Atlantis will rendezvous with Hubble to repair and upgrade it for the fifth time in its nearly two decades of service. When they leave, it will be better than ever. It will be better than anyone ever imagined that it might be, back when I was working on the project some twenty-five years ago.

The story of this scientific and engineering marvel is one of bold vision, imagination, and audacious risk-taking, but also perseverance and ingenuity when, as sometimes happens, not all risks are successfully negotiated. It is a story that transcends science, with Hubble images on display today in art museums, or in homes where no scientist lives. But we all know that these images are far more than a just a bunch of pretty pictures. Hubble has observed the birth and death of stars not unlike our own solar system. It has shown the collision of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with the planet Jupiter, not unlike the asteroid collision sixty- five million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs then roaming the Earth. It has peered through a tiny knothole in the night sky, deep into the early universe, finding thousands of galaxies where our own human eyes would see only a patch of darkness. It has found the galaxies in our universe to be accelerating away from each other at a rate faster than any astrophysicist, including Edwin Hubble, ever predicted, allowing new insights into the birth and eventual fate of our universe, while raising new mysteries about dark matter and dark energy, constituents of a universe that astrophysicists, in all humility, must admit we barely understand today. Hubble has become a cultural icon while remaining an instrument of fundamental scientific discovery. It is unique in human history in its ability to occupy a place of prominence in both art museums and scientific journals.

The birth of the Hubble Space Telescope, with its launch in April 1990, would not have caused anyone to envision this outcome. Hubble's first images were unaccountably blurry, and analysis of its optical system revealed that a 2.3 micron error had been introduced in the grinding of its 2.4-meter primary mirror. The width of an average human hair is eighty microns, so the error was almost unimaginably small. But as this audience will understand, it is a huge error in terms of the optical wavelengths that a telescope must manipulate if it is to function. This mistake was devastating to the astronomical community. It was equally devastating to NASA's credibility. NASA was the brunt of jokes on late night talk shows, with the Hubble being compared to the Titanic, the Hindenberg, and the Edsel.

I have said that in the space business we live by a creed of excellence, or die without it. With Hubble, we faced a situation where this small error, left unchecked, called into question our ability to live by that creed. The jokes were cruel, leveling charges that NASA no longer had "The Right Stuff", in Tom Wolfe's elegant phrase. While such talk unfairly denigrates the many dedicated engineers, scientists, and technicians who work late into the night to maintain the high standard of most of our endeavors, even the slightest error on such a highly visible project calls into question what happened and, above all else, who was to blame.

Maybe this institute should study this peculiarly human trait - the predilection to "kick those who are down". For me, it always calls to mind President Theodore Roosevelt's great speech, "Citizenship in a Republic", with its famous excerpt about "the man in the arena". Few of those offering criticism of the Hubble mistake were capable of understanding its nature or origin, or indeed anything else of how Hubble was designed, or of the exacting tolerances to which it had to be built, or of the tradeoffs that engineers face when deciding how to allocate scarce resources to multiple, competing concerns. As someone who has served on numerous failure boards, and has had to lead teams out of despair, I can only say that criticism from those who are both inept and uninvolved serves no useful function. It cannot even make us feel worse about ourselves than we already do, when we have failed. But it does seem to be a constant companion of bold endeavors, the dark side of human progress. A long career in the space business, with too many opportunities to observe this behavior, has caused me to come to the belief that there is, or at least should be, such a thing as earning the right to hold an opinion.

But I digress. In the aftermath of the Hubble debacle, some Washington policymakers called for an end to NASA altogether. But we don't cast aside human frailty when we venture into space, and wiser heads understood that reaching for the unknown requires the fortitude to deal with adversity. As President John F. Kennedy warned the Congress and our nation in May, 1961, when - with fifteen minutes of human spaceflight to our credit - he set forth the challenge to go to the Moon, "If we are to go only halfway, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all."

Thus, the Hubble scientists and engineers set their sights on fixing the telescope. The first step was to characterize precisely the observed error in the primary mirror, and then craft a corrective lens for the aberration. The crew of the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope trained intensively for one of the most complex Shuttle missions ever undertaken, with five spacewalks and over a hundred specialized tools to correct the optics, while also installing new solar arrays, gyroscopes, and other electrical components. They also upgraded the telescope with a new wide field and planetary camera.

You all know today that this first Shuttle mission to service the Hubble, as well as the three which followed, were huge successes. The Hubble dazzles us with the splendor of our universe, but during those grim years between 1990 and '93, its awe-inspiring success was far from certain. If you didn't know the core strength of the NASA team when the chips are down, you might have bet against us. You would have lost.

And that is why, to me, the most meaningful lesson from the Hubble Space Telescope has more to do with our human nature than with any of the secrets of our universe. That is, in the face of adversity, we must resolve to persevere. To that end, I know, because I see it every day, that NASA still has "The Right Stuff".

Now, I must take a moment to acknowledge those who risked their lives to make the Hubble Space Telescope such a success. Every astronaut I know who has been on a Hubble mission has a special place in his or her heart for that machine. They believe it to be a part of something greater than themselves, that the risk of their lives is worth the promise of unlocking the secrets of our universe for future generations. As David Leckrone, Hubble program's senior scientist, once said:

....."We are privileged to be the first generation of homo sapiens to gain a clear and deep view of the visible universe. And what we see 'out there' is staggering in its beauty, awesome in its scale and shocking in the way it has upended our preconceived notions about how nature works. You don't have to be a scientist to grasp this. Any thinking person who has come in contact with Hubble images and Hubble discoveries seems to find exhilaration in the notion that our place in the grand scheme of things is now better defined than in all of prior human history."

Dave is so right. And yet, his comment makes a great preface to an observation I now wish to make. It will probably set you back a bit. Science is not everything we do at NASA, nor should it be. And, while the advancement of science is of fundamental importance at NASA, and scientific discovery has a key role in human spaceflight, it is not the most compelling reason to do it.

I would like to take some time to explain why I believe this to be so, because numerous critics have called into question the cost and risk of journeys to the Moon, Mars, and the near-Earth asteroids, or the construction of the International Space Station, which we are using as an engineering testbed to learn how to sustain such journeys. So let me try to provide some food for thought for you tonight. Some of you will disagree with me, and thus spark a worthwhile debate. I never learn a thing by talking with people who agree with me.

To me, NASA's manned missions to the Hubble Space Telescope are qualitatively different from our other human spaceflight endeavors. The difference is fundamental and important. And while our other efforts may not seem, today, to be as noble and worthwhile as servicing the Hubble, they are in the long run more important to the future of the human race. Allow me, if you will, to try to explain why I believe this to be so.

Surviving off-planet, in a different environment having different natural resources than those we have come to understand and take for granted, without the ability to drive to the nearest supermarket or doctor's office, is a qualitatively different experience than a brief foray into low Earth orbit. Not many will realize it, but NASA and our international partners have maintained a permanent human foothold in space onboard the International Space Station since October 2000. The hard lessons of living and working in outer space 24/7/365 are much different than those of an intense, two-week campaign to service a scientific instrument like the Hubble, to deploy a mission like Galileo to Jupiter or the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, or to conduct other research, as has been done on many individual Shuttle missions.

So, when we begin our halting steps back to the Moon in the next decade, or a journey to Mars in about twenty-five years, we will need to know what we must bring with us, but also how we might live off the land with the resources available to us when we arrive. And after we test the hypothesis that we can survive on other worlds, we then need to determine whether such outposts can become economically viable - meaning, is there anything to do there which is worth the investment to do it? Many today will assert, without benefit of proof, that the answer is categorically "yes", while others believe that the answer is "no". In my opinion, no one today can know the answer. The answer can be found only by experiment. In that sense, the purpose of today's human spaceflight program is to conduct such experiments, to explore and develop options, to unveil possibilities for future generations.

This experiment will be conducted in space over the course of the coming centuries by people from Earth. Only the language, culture, and motives of the experimenters remain to be determined. I hope that this experiment will always find Americans, in company with our international partners, as first among equals on the frontiers of their time.

The experiment will be not dissimilar to those conducted by our ancestors far removed in space and time, when they left East Africa looking for an easier existence elsewhere. It is not dissimilar to that conducted by our more immediate ancestors, just a few centuries ago, when they began to explore and settle what, to Europeans, was "the New World". In that context, I might note that it required the long-term investment of kingdoms, governments, commercial industry, and private citizens for many generations before it could honestly be said that the New World provided a positive return on investment for society at large.

And on a smaller scale, our experiment in space will not be dissimilar to that conducted by Thomas Jefferson, when he risked impeachment to consummate the Louisiana Purchase, and then sought Congressional financing for what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition, two hundred years ago. By the way, Lewis and Clark overran their budget, lost a considerable amount of their equipment, fell so far behind schedule that they were given up for dead, and failed to achieve their primary goal - finding a suitable water route from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Does anyone here think their effort was wasted?

Venturing into space is similarly an experiment, but one eminently worth conducting, for several reasons. First, I strongly believe, that there will be near- term benefits to science, technology, economics, and national security as we begin to incorporate the Solar System into our sphere of influence, as Science Advisor Jack Marburger framed the issue a few years ago.

I do not believe I need to dwell upon the benefits to human society of scientific advances. We are on the verge of developing a new paradigm, a new view of how the universe is constructed. The last time - a century ago - that such an experience was forced upon us, it was accomplished through the work of Albert Einstein and his elucidation of relativity and quantum mechanics. Today these disciplines underpin much of modern technology, and form the backdrop of physics against which new ideas are interpreted. What will be the implications of forming new theories which embrace the experimental findings that 96% of the mass-energy of the universe is comprised of dark energy and dark matter, things we don't yet even pretend to understand?

Regarding technology, what is the benefit to a society which learns how to do what no one else has ever done? No human activity is more demanding, across a broader range of disciplines, than space exploration, nor is there any which produces greater returns from its mastery. Two generations and more ago, in what I consider to be the best speech he ever gave, President Kennedy said, "...We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...". As a nation, we are still reaping the benefits of the Apollo investment, but they are coming to an end. America is no longer supreme in the world marketplace, not even in aerospace. It is time to move the goalposts, to define some new "hard things", to move outward again, for precisely the reasons Kennedy articulated so long ago.

I believe that a vigorous civil space program offers collateral benefits to national security as well. When I have spoken of this in the past, it has usually elicited some surprise. But I think those who are surprised are taking too narrow a view of "national security". For the last century, the United States has been a world power, even if at times we did not aspire to or even recognize that fact. As such, we have assumed certain responsibilities for leadership on the world stage, and in that capacity it is inevitable that we have been, and will again be, called upon to make decisions and take actions that displease other nations and societies. We cannot possibly please everyone, and we cannot retire from world affairs.

But it is equally true that we cannot prosper if every hand is against us. So if we must do hard things, it behooves us also to undertake activities which easily attract allies and partners, things which bind us to others in the world community. No activity has shown itself to be of greater inherent interest and excitement to others than has the exploration and development of the space frontier. And so I ask, concerning national security, what is the value of being a nation, a society, which leads the world in an endeavor that excites all others, one in which every nation that can do so seeks to partner with us?

These are some of the specific benefits I see accruing to the nation which leads in the exploration of space. But I also believe that, in the long term, it will be important for the survival of homo sapiens to inhabit planets other than Earth. It will be in our interest to develop the technical capabilities to avoid the many cosmic collisions which we have now documented in the geological record. The comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 consisted of at least twenty-one discernable fragments with diameters up to two kilometers wide. Even one such collision with the Earth would be devastating, and it doesn't have to be a dinosaur-killer. An impact like the Tunguska event of 1908 could destroy the cultural and economic fabric of a nation, should it land in a populated area instead of the Siberian wilderness.

And so I believe that long-term survival, scientific discovery, economic benefit, and recognized leadership in great endeavors provide a worthwhile rationale for sustaining our nation's human spaceflight efforts. This and our endeavors in robotic Earth and space science, and our work in advanced aeronautics, are purchased with an investment in NASA of less than 0.6 percent of the Federal budget of the United States. (If any of you happen to be an average Americans, this figure will surprise you, as polls reveal that the fifty-percentile American believes that NASA receives over twenty-four percent of the Federal budget, comparable to that of the Department of Defense.)

My view is that our efforts in human spaceflight are, in actuality, far more meaningful than the "flags and footprints" rationale with which critics of human spaceflight like to denigrate Apollo, or future voyages to the Moon and Mars. Survival, leadership in great enterprises, and economic benefit are real and acceptable reasons why humans should continue to explore space, beyond what robotic spacecraft can achieve.

Throughout mankind's time on this world, we have gazed up at the night sky and attempted to make sense of the stars, planets, comets, and asteroids, speculating about what they might mean. While we are lucky enough to be the first generation to see the universe with the clarity Hubble offers, I firmly believe that we also need to journey beyond "the surly bonds of Earth", in order to see the universe with our own eyes. In the words of poet T.S. Eliot, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." I believe that expanding the range and scope of human action is a goal fully as noble as that of scientific discovery.

I also think that, in our hearts, we know these things. We know that space is the frontier of tomorrow, and that the frontier can only be ours with "boots on the ground." We know from even the most casual reading of history that nations that shrink from the frontiers of their time, shrink also in their influence on the world stage. We know these things, and yet we also see that Americans today do not feel the urgency for preeminence on the space frontier that we felt in the 1950s and '60s. Sometimes I wonder if we are a bit tired or distracted from other, urgent crises to recognize what that preeminence means for America.

And so I am reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's "gallant knight" in search of Eldorado and who, in his fatigue, asks a "pilgrim shadow" where it might be. "Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride", the shade replied - "If you seek for Eldorado!"

Sometimes, there is no rest for the weary.

Thank you.

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